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The History of Modern Computers
The history of early computing devices is rather long. Today changes in computing are much more rapid. In fact, it is not uncommon today for major changes in computing technology to occur in months rather than years.
Because of today’s rapid change in computing and technology, the easiest way to understand modern computing is with the use of the term generation. Like generations of humans, there are a number of similarities in computers of the same generation. In computer terms, a new generation is usually marked with a major development in computer hardware. However, new developments in electronic engineering also make new computer applications possible.
The early computers were developed by scholars or inventors with support from the government or wealthy patrons. The inventors themselves operated the computer. On occasion, other scientists, engineers, or the government would use the computer. Further, most early computers were designed for one specific, narrow purpose. However, when early computers showed success in specific applications, business and industry began to show an interest. The entrance of computers into the commercial world is one characteristic of the first generation of computers. First-generation computers were developed during the 1940s and lasted through much of the 1950s.
The first computer to find users in business and industry was the universal automatic computer, or UNIVAC I, developed by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. Eckert and Mauchly were quick to see the commercial applications of computers. The two inventors formed a private company and designed the UNIVAC for manufacture. However, lacking the funds to build the machine, they sold their company to Remington-Rand Corporation, and Remington-Rand sold the first UNIVAC to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951.
Although the government was the first to take advantage of the UNIVAC I, its applications in business and industry soon became clear. This computer was not a machine limited to a single use. It could count inventory, calculate payroll, monitor accounts receivable, and maintain a general ledger. Even though it took a staff of dozen of people to operate the UNIVAC I and other first-generation computers, these machines could do the work of many bookkeepers and accountants. Thus, a company could justify its large initial investment, purchasing the computer and hiring dozens of specialized programmers, by the increasing accuracy and speed of work and more effective use of personnel resources. That is, with a computer, accountants and bookkeepers didn’t have to spend hours every day by checking the accuracy of reports. Their new task was to interpret the data generated by the computer. Thus, the use of first-generation computers in business didn’t result in the displacement of a large number of employees, but did result in a redefinition of their jobs.
First-generation computers used vacuum tubes, first established by Atanasoff and Berry. Vacuum tubes are electrical switches that work much faster than mechanical switching devices. A machine with vacuum tubes could perform several thousand calculations per second – slow by today’s standards, but breathtakingly fast at the time.
Unfortunately, vacuum tubes generated heat, which caused them to break down. They were susceptible to frequent failures, shorts, and electronic fluctuations or surges. First-generation computers had to be housed in air-conditioned rooms. The rooms also had to be very large, because the computers themselves were huge in order to hold several different size vacuum tubes.....